Charlene Lanzel Sand Art: In the Moment of Creation

A Conversation with a Versatile Talent

Alice and the Cat, Painting by Charlene Lanzel

Like a multifaceted diamond, Charlene Lanzel sparkles through her fine art paintings, murals, trompe l’œil, street painting and sand art. Born into a family of visual artists in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1967 Charlene was published in an instruction book for elementary school art teachers by age 9. In 1985 she received the Senior Art Award and Art Scholarship from her high school in Onalaska, Wisconsin. In 1987 she relocated to New York. The year 1999 saw Charlene Lanzel painting Italian trompe l’œil murals for the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas, with fellow artist Tracy Lee Stum. The two also competed together at the prestigious XXVII Centro Italiano Madonnari Street Painting Festival in Mantova, Italy. The yearning to explore beyond the one frame image painted on canvas, Charlene was fascinated viewing sand animation when she first saw it in 2004. It is not until 2010 though that she embraced the idea of becoming a performance artist herself. Since then she is narrating timeless stories of love, festivities and even tragedies of life through this ephemeral art form.

The Fairy of Pirates Alley, Painting by Charlene Lanzel
The Fairy of Pirates Alley

Describe your sensations and the concentrated effort it requires while performing as a sand artist since it has a zero margin of error more like the players acting on stage.

The performance is the fun part… the bonus I get for all of the hard work leading up to it. By the time I get to the performance, everything is so worked out and perfected that I can relax, somewhat, and enjoy the dance. Coming up with a new piece takes me several weeks of trial and error. Creating the soundtrack to synch with the flow of artwork is also challenging. There’s a lot of back and forth between the music and the artwork until finally a balance is achieved. I then practice repeatedly to create a smooth flow… to make it look easy and flawless for the viewer. It certainly isn’t easy. It’s a lot of hard work and patience… and even more practice.

Your tryst with creativity compelled you to explore art in its different avatars. Has there been any single thread that helped to harmonize all the different facets of arts?

The thing that keeps me interested and motivated in the arts is, perhaps, my undying curiosity about nature and reality, in general. How light works… how shapes are created… how colour balances. I tend to study subjects like physics and sacred geometry. Making art in any form helps me to realize those concepts.

Does it bother you at any point in time that sand art could not be framed and given a life of its own in line with the fine art genres you practice and showcase? That by your own admission which took such an enormous amount of practice to pick up is only meant to hold its position in the fleeting memory of onlookers?

Sand art was a natural progression for me, both with my art and my personal philosophies. One of the main reasons I got into creating sand art was my interest in the Buddhist concept of impermanence. I was studying Tibetan sand paintings when a friend with mutual interests turned me on to sand art as a live performance. I was drawn to it immediately.

I had worked for many years as a mural painter in a factory-like studio setting. I was quite accustomed to finishing my work, and 5 minutes later taking it off the wall, rolling it up, and shipping it out… never to be seen again. So, I was growing detached from my artwork. It became more about the process.

Later, I started street painting, another ephemeral art form. Watching the beautiful images in chalk wash away from the sidewalk at the end of a festival would break my heart. But, I learned to appreciate being in the moment of creation and enjoying that moment to it’s fullest. There are many more pretty pictures to create.

Like the street painting that you have actively participated in, sand–art is also going to have curious people encircling you to see your activities. How do you manage the interaction with people while still being concentrated at your work?

I really enjoy situations where I’m interacting with people while creating art. It’s such a fascination for the viewer to see how art is created. For the most part, we artists are in our studios, a bit like hermits, with very little public interaction and no reward. It’s a somewhat lonely and secretive process, then revealed when perfected. We rarely get real-time feedback… and it’s so interesting to hear the array of comments. So rewarding to get a compliment too! Sometimes, though, it’s hard for me to speak when I’m deep in the creative zone. I get so far on the creative side that it takes some concentration to be able to form words.

From the jewels of experience, you managed to gather from all your experimentations with art is there any incident that you very fondly remember?

My fondest art making memories are the fun times I’ve had with all of the different artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with and learning from, over the years. When I work with another artist I’m always listening, learning, picking up new tricks. You can learn something new from everyone you meet… maybe a new tool, a different technique, advice about colours, lessons in perspective, or even great music to create to. Every person can teach you something. There is always something to learn if you’re willing to listen.

Individuals who have provided you inspirations on this journey thus far that you would like to share.

My Dad, my Mom, my Grandpa Charlie… Tracy Lee Stum, David Newcomb, Pedro Celin, Gordon Meier, Alfredo Arcia, Paul Kuhrman, Elsie Lyons, Matthew Quayle, Norvel Hermanovski, Darek Nowakowski, Min Young Choi… to name but a few. They are all amazing technicians and I would not be half the artist I am without having known each of them.

Your fascination with art started early and you still carry this love after all these years. What perspective would you give on the evolution of the creative self of yours over the years?

I don’t believe I chose to be an artist… being an artist chose me. It was something that came easily to me… a gift. I didn’t want to waste that gift. I wanted to nourish it and allow it to grow. I always had great emotional support from my family and friends. I’ve pursued the arts wholeheartedly all my life. It’s not the easiest path, but I never wanted to do anything else, and now it’s the only thing I know how to do. So, I’ll continue… until the end.

Charlene Lanzel

The transience of sand art tells stories of many fleeting moments, layer after layer, mimicking life in many ways. Following the rhythm of the ambient music, Charlene’s hands scatter sand on lightbox creating story one moment, destroying the next only to recreate another tale for her dazed audience.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Charlene Lanzel